By Jim O’Neal
It’s Bastille Day.
On July 14, 1789, an enraged Parisian mob, seeking weapons to defend their city from a rumored royal attack, stormed the crumbling fortress known as the Bastille and murdered its governor and guards. This violent defiance of royal power has become the symbol of the French Revolution, a movement that not only engulfed France, but also reverberated around the world. The ideas articulated in the revolution spelled the end of Europe’s absolute monarchies and inspired their eventual replacement by more democratic governments.
The indecisive French King Louis XVI was hardly the person to confront any crisis, especially one as serious as that facing France in 1789. In the previous century, his great-grandfather, Louis XIV, the Sun King, had established France as an absolute monarchy with all power concentrated in the king’s hands. His palace at Versailles was the most sophisticated court in Europe and a bastion of aristocratic privilege.
In October 1789, events suddenly accelerated when a vast crowd, outraged by a lack of bread in Paris, descended upon Versailles and forcibly removed the royal family to Paris, ransacking the palace for good measure. In what would become an unnerving foretaste of the violence to come, the severed heads of the guards at Versailles were paraded on stakes as Louis and his family were escorted to the capital.
By September, a kind of hysteria gripped the city. A mob stormed the Tuileries, where the royal family was held, slaughtering the Swiss Guards. Louis XVI was put on trial as a traitor and executed on the guillotine in January 1793. Eventually, order was restored by the end of 1795.
Whatever the importance of the French Revolution, it remains the subject of intense historical debate. Its goals of ending repressive monarchy and championing universal rights were confused and often violent. Furthermore, by 1804 Napoleon had effectively swapped one form of absolutism for his own, albeit more effective than any had known since Louis XIV.
Still, it remains a pivotal moment in the belief that freedom should underpin the civilized world … a principle we still embrace with every ounce of energy.
Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].